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Dong-Ping Wong on How Architecture Reflects Culture

Dong-Ping Wong, this year’s Core77 Design Awards Built Environment Jury Captain, is both an architect in the purest sense of the word, and yet, a rule breaker vying for change in an industry built on tradition. With projects varying from Plus Pool, a civic project aiming to simultaneously provide New York City with a public pool and filter the filth in the Hudson River, to Virgil Abloh’s concept-driven Singapore retail location, the projects his architecture firm FOOD New York take on are as varied as they come.

In a recent interview, we spoke with Wong about what fueled his initial love for architecture and his predictions for what changes the field is bound to see in the future:

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Off-White store in Singapore

Can you tell us more about your background in architecture and what got you interested in the first place?

My architectural training is pretty straightforward, but I think the two things that I always come back to are the first two pieces of architecture that I saw. One is a very classic thing, the Salk Institute in San Diego. I grew up in San Diego, so that’s a very classic piece of architecture—it’s by far the most famous thing in San Diego, which isn’t saying a lot, but it’s a very classic modernist architecture thing. And it was definitely one of the first things where I was like, “oh shit—architecture can kind of have that emotional resonance and be really powerful as a space in that way”. It’s actually where polio was cured, so how the architecture was set up served as a very direct and easily understandable cause. 

So that was one inspiration on that high-end architecture side, and when I was a kid one thing that started me getting me thinking about it, although I don’t think I knew what architecture was at the time, for a little while my parents lived in a very normal, middle-class suburb in San Diego. My parents were always looking to move, and you know how when you look at new suburban developments there’s like the same house but it painted different colors? And it’s like “model home A model home B”, And you’re basically choosing if you want like a pink one or a beige one. So I remember walking into one of those, walking into a few of them and being super fascinated by how in one of them the bathrooms on the left and the other in the bathrooms on the right. And I thought we should definitely pick the one with the bathrooms on the right because the bedrooms over here…” You know, not really thinking about it architecturally, but weirdly having that direct comparison I love how different the houses felt simply by moving certain things around. As far as I can tell, that was probably before the Salk Institute. I do think it was a very mundane suburban thing, but because they set up their homes that way do you get a really easy way to compare the differences between two things within like a 30 second span or a five minute minute span or whatever.

Golden Tower concept for Chinatown, NY

You’ve managed to put yourself in a position where you’re in the pop culture realm working on set production while also designing projects around accessibly and universality. What area of architecture would you say speaks to you most?

Yeah I know, it’s funny because it’s only relatively recently that I feel like I’m noticing a theme; not an aesthetic theme, but a philosophical one. And the reason those projects that I brought up I think are very useful for me is that the theme is basically… I’ve never tried to articulate this actually… it’s like, there’s a huge satisfaction in doing work in the way that people really resonate with it and understand it that’s why I think the suburban side came in. I want non-architects to really feel affected and fall in love with something, or at least understand how it’s affecting them. And there’s the Salk Institute side where our work strives for the sublime beauty that Salk has. And through that philosophy, you can actually create something hugely productive and functional in this totally weird way. 

It feels much more eclectic, much more decentralized and democratic in terms of who can get into architecture and design architecture, and that’s really exciting.

So I think the key with my work really is, as dumb as it is, designing things for normal people and for normal things. Every time we design even something like a store, it’s not so much just a place to buy stuff. We ask ourselves, can you make a space where anybody would want to come and spend time in and is just a really interesting and great place to be and attracting a lot of interesting people? So beyond the kind of objective functionality of it, there’s a reason to be there, and anybody can feel that even if they can’t articulate it. I think that’s always been really important. 

I remember listening something in the past where you we’re talking about the idea of “productive architecture”. Is that what you mean by what you’re saying?

In some ways. I think I realize that there’s two things I guess. On the productive side, what’s become very important in our office is that whatever we put out there does something, and everything does something fairly tangible. There’s a purpose for why you’re spending all this money and why you’re spending all the time on it, all our energy and resources going into something, so it should produce something of benefit. And it seems really dumb, like it’s weird to say that something doesn’t produce a benefit, but I think as soon as we started saying it that way, it changed the way we started thinking about architecture. So it’s less about how it looked or even how it felt necessarily; it was like, what’s the product? So sometimes that “productive” element is very direct, sometimes it’s more ephemeral, but that frame of mind helps us make sure we’re doing things that really benefit people. And I think that’s usually counterbalanced with creating an experience at the end of the day that’s readily tangible to everybody, even though it’s something hopefully very conceptual.

What is some architectural work you’ve seen as of late that’s particularly exciting to you—something new that you haven’t seen before? 

This doesn’t really answer that question, but one thing I’ve noticed that’s kind of funny…so I always ask either our younger staff or students who their favorite architects are, and I’ve noticed recently that nobody seems to really have favorites. And I think that’s because there’s so much more architecture media out there. I mean, that can generally be said with everything, but before there were like go-to books and periodicals and magazines.

I’ve noticed it’s kind of hard for me to feel like there are lasting movements happening. It feels much more eclectic, much more decentralized and democratic in terms of who can get into architecture and design architecture, and that’s really exciting, but weirdly I’ve noticed it’s harder to notice really big shifts happening just because it’s not really presented that way anymore. 

Japanese architecture is really huge, especially in schools and around the world in terms of this really white, minimalist, super simple, almost non-existent architecture that’s really beautiful in this ephemeral way. And I still really love that stuff, but almost as a reaction I feel like there’s starting to be more interest in rich materials and decoration; so the opposite of ephemeral. Spaces are becoming less minimalistic—I couldn’t tell you why that is except maybe it’s a reaction to that movement of Japanese minimalism. That I think is kind of interesting because I think there’s so many more materials you can explore, ways of building you can explore, ways of making that also people can get into now. It’s just fun to see really weird shit that doesn’t really have a function sometimes.

Set Design for Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour

Do you feel like in that way architecture reflects culture? Do you believe architecture had that ability like, say, fashion does?

Yeah, absolutely. Actually, that’s a good parallel. You know, we’re in Paris right now for a couple of Virgil [Abloh] shows, Louis Vuitton shows, That sort of wave of street culture turning into high fashion culture. What’s really interesting about that is the availability of that sort of fashion—I mean, maybe not price point-wise—but the ability to make a t-shirt and turn a graphic into legitimate fashion—and I think it means it’s not down to the top 10 fashion houses. Like, any kid can make something and start getting interest and movement from it. 

I do think new architecture is reflecting that. It’s much slower obviously compared to fashion, but I think that eclecticism is maybe coming about because of that, where people are finding new ways to building things. Like, people are making their own tiles, for example—finding weird choices of terrazzo and constructing things in ways that wouldn’t have been able to be done before. 

And of course, publishing things that aren’t beholden to any established publication, just through Instagram. So I think there is a reflection of that if eclecticism or democratization I guess, it’s just much slower in architecture. It’s exciting, my hope is that down the road a young architect is not someone who’s under 50, a young architect is someone who’s under 30. And they’re actually getting stuff built, they’re actually making waves and affecting the world physically.

How do you envision architecture changing in the future?

I think it’s probably just about looking at other industries—I mean, fashion is a perfect one where communication of ideas is much faster and more seamless and more direct. I think the production of architecture maybe hasn’t gotten much faster, it’s still a long slog to get something from conception to getting it built. It’s been a promise of technology helping that once in a while with prefab stuff or kind of machine robot assisted production, but it’s not quite there yet. 

My interest is not so much whether it’s pretty or done particularly well, but more that it’s a totally wild thing that someone actually carried through. It’s one thing to put ideas out there, but it’s a totally different thing to commit to it and execute it and actually get it done and have a belief in it.

I don’t know if 3D printing or 3D building is necessarily an answer, but at the very least I think there is a totally different way of delivering ideas that didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago, and I do think that’s bound to affect what qualifies as good or worthwhile architecture and architects. Especially in a place like New York where there’s still a very a big belief in established architects. I would like to think that slowly when you’re looking for something new [it’s coming from someone young], like it would be in fashion or other design fields. I don’t think architecture’s quite there yet, you’re still looking at the same established firms hoping to come up with something new. But I feel like that’s slowly happening where younger and younger firms are landing bigger projects and more notoriety.

Yeah, accessibility is probably kind of universal across all disciplines now, so it’s easier to create products and maybe somewhat easier to create buildings or find new ways to create them.

Hopefully, as the building of architecture will get cheaper and easier. Right now, for example, product design doesn’t cost as much, it doesn’t take as long, so it’s much more accessible to a younger designer base, and hopefully that gap between that and a building, closes slowly. I think architecture needs to get cheaper, it needs to get faster, and I think it will as cultural demand grows for that sort of thing. 

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One thing I’m even noticing is, in our studio and I think a bunch of our friends, are trying to do things really quickly. Not necessarily to rush for a deadline but to see if we can design things on a track as a way to sort of test it. We as architects were trained I think to take a lot of time to build something, so it’s fun to kind of do the opposite.

Plus Pool concept rendering

I actually never wanted to study architecture because of the time cycle! So going back to the Plus Pool—nowadays, it feels like a lot of architects and designers really want to involve themselves in public affairs. Do you think a project like Plus Pool could only be dreamed up today with entities like Kickstarter and social media?

I’m not sure what we did [with Plus Pool] would have been possible even 15 years ago because the modes of communication like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, internet in general, Kickstarter, I think there’s examples like at the Highline of general public creating public space out of thin air without a kind of top-down ask, so it’s certainly possible, but I think the method is very different. Which means, especially now it’s much more accessible to anybody that has an app and can put an image online. I think somebody can put a project out there, and that’s really exciting. But it’s also where it starts getting… where you can tell the cultural shifts hasn’t happened yet, where everything slows down, becomes more like a traditional project. So for example, one of the longest slogs of the project is on the political side where we’re still having to go through traditional routes of getting political buy-in and support, because I think that public engagement with city life and the effect of politicians making actual decisions and signing off on things, that’s still kind of a slow and old [process]. So I feel like what’s nice is, I love it in the model of people getting really engaged but it’s not quite there yet where we can really push and assume the thing can be built in an entirely new way, I almost feel like it’s 40% new and innovative process and 60% very old, slow New York [political bureaucracy].

What kind of projects would get you excited if you saw them being submitted to the Core77 Design Awards? What are you looking for?

I guess I really get excited by stuff that’s kind of fucked up. My interest is not so much whether it’s pretty or done particularly well, but more that it’s a totally wild thing that someone actually carried through. It’s one thing to put ideas out there, but it’s a totally different thing to commit to it and execute it and actually get it done and have a belief in it. I think things that look like they were done totally outside of traditional architectural process would make me very excited. So I don’t know what that looks like yet. 

For sure from a design level, I’m looking for something different, but if there were projects that were somehow conceived and built in 2 months or a way they were built with methods that are completely foreign to how a typical building is made, especially if it’s more democratic, if it’s more accessible, less formal, I think that would really excite me. Mainly because I think it points to different ways of creating buildings. And then at the end of the day, I think it also points to opening up the ability for lots of different types of people to create buildings, and have effects on cities in that way. I think that would be the most exciting thing I could imagine.

Thinking of submitting to the Built Environment category in the 2019 Core77 Design Awards? Submit today—your final day to submit is April 1st at 9 PM EST!

Source: core77

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